Highway Network on the Rooftop of the World

Back in the seventh century, when Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was sent to marry King Songtsen Gampo of the Tubo Kingdom, her journey from Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) to Lhasa took almost one year. People today can hardly imagine the hardships she experienced on her way to Tibet.

Covering an area of more than 1.2 million square km, Tibet is a region of China with the highest elevation. It has 50 mountains with altitudes of up to 7,000 meters and 11 peaks rising over 8,000 meters above sea level. The region has achieved fame as the “rooftop of the world.”

Before 1950, Tibet had neither roads nor courier routes. Tracks were mere meandering footpaths, with plank roads and ladders built along the face of mountain cliffs.

Developed From Nothing

Shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, liberating Tibet was put on the agenda of the Central Government. Tibet, which was still under feudal serfdom, was the only region of China not accessible by roads at that time, so Chairman Mao Zedong ordered the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to build a road while marching toward Tibet in early 1950. In April that year, construction of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway formally started in Ya’an, Sichuan Province.

Tibet was peacefully liberated on May 23, 1951. In December 1954, the Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet highways, which were called “rainbow roads” by local people, were completed and opened to traffic. When vehicles rumbled into the region for the first time on December 25 that year, the history of Tibetan transportation having to rely on human and animal power ended.

Later, the State organized large numbers of highway engineers, technicians and workers from across the country, and invested huge amounts of funds in road construction. It helped Tibet build a number of regional, national and international trunk roads, including the China-Nepal, Xinjiang-Tibet and Yunnan-Tibet highways. By March 1959, the region had had 5,648 km of roads open to traffic and 1,330 civil vehicles. This highway network ushered in a new era in the development of Tibet’s transportation.

During the 1960s-70s the State invested more than 1 billion yuan in the large-scale reconstruction of the Qinghai-Tibet and Sichuan-Tibet highways. In 1985, the reconstructed Qinghai-Tibet Highway was sealed, becoming the first asphalt road in Tibet. That same year, the road from Lhasa to Gonggar Airport was also sealed.

In the 1990s, especially since the 1994 Third Central Meeting on the Work of Tibet, the State has increased investment in the region’s road construction, with the amount exceeding 4 billion yuan between 1996 and 2000. This has greatly accelerated the development of Tibet’s highway communications.

By the end of 2000, more than 1,000 permanent bridges, with a total length of 30,000 meters, had been built in Tibet and 22,500 km of roads put into operation. A highway network, with Lhasa at its center and supported by five national roads, began to take shape. Except for Medog, all 72 counties in the region, 80 percent of towns and townships and 63 percent of administrative villages have access to roads.

Roads Built With Lives

Tibet is now connected with other parts of the country by four roads—the Sichuan-Tibet, Yunnan-Tibet, Qinghai-Tibet and Xinjiang-Tibet highways. The Sichuan-Tibet Highway is considered the most dangerous road in the world, because it is subject to frequent landslides and mud-rock flows.

The Tibetan Plateau has a unique natural environment and varied topographical, geological and climatic conditions. Many roads there are often damaged by natural disasters. A flood last year destroyed more than 300 bridges and washed away more than 10 km of the No.318 National Highway, along with road building machinery. Restoring traffic on this road has cost 100 million yuan, as well as 27 lives.

Developing transportation facilities on the Tibetan Plateau is more difficult than in other parts of the country, and the problems are especially unimaginable in areas with natural conditions contrary to human subsistence and production.

The Sichuan-Tibet Highway extends 2,413 km from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, in the east, to Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, in the west. This road traverses more mountains and valleys and has the most varied geological conditions than any other road. To find an ideal route, eight exploration teams and four survey teams made on-the-spot surveys in the early 1950s. Carrying simple apparatus such as a barometer, compass and pedometer, they crossed more than 200 mountains and walked over 10,000 km, before determining the route of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, which now spans 14 mountains.

A total of 110,000 Han and Tibetan soldiers and civilians participated in the construction of this road. They braved many hardships and dangers, including freezing weather, altitude sickness, landslides, mudflows and cave-ins. More than 3,000 road builders lost their lives during construction. In other words, every 800 meters of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway cost a life.

The 2,122-km Qinghai-Tibet Highway stretches from Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, to Lhasa. Since it was built, it has undertaken the transportation of 85 percent of goods into, and 90 percent of goods out of Tibet. To ensure smooth operation of this “lifeline,” more than 1,500 road maintenance workers work along the section between Golmud and Lhasa all year round.

The No.109 Crew of the Amdo Maintenance Division works on the Tanggula Mountain, 5,231 meters above sea level, and has been named the “World’s No.1 Maintenance Crew” by the Ministry of Communications. This area features harsh natural conditions, with an average annual temperature of -8 degrees Centigrade and the lowest temperature reaching -40 degrees Centigrade. The oxygen content here accounts for only 50 percent of the volume at sea level. Therefore, the area is regarded as a “life-threatening zone.”

Under such difficult circumstances, workers of the No.109 Crew have been maintaining the road year after year, filling in the cave-ins, clearing away the debris of landslides and building protective walls. When the road is covered by heavy snow, they work around the clock, removing snow from the road and providing food and accommodation for passengers and drivers of stranded vehicles.

They also assist vehicles that break down and help rescue people injured in accidents. During a natural disaster in 1989, the crew offered assistance to more than 600 vehicles.

Improving Quality

Tibet’s transportation undertakings have made much headway, forming a regional road network linking all major prefectures and cities. However, the technical standards of the roads are still quite low and their traffic capacity is generally small.

Gyamco, director of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Department of Communications, noted that 53 percent of the roads in the region are substandard, lagging far behind the national average level. As Tibet has no railway or waterway transportation facilities, and airway transportation is still underdeveloped, roads are vital to local economic development and social progress.

“Having roads is not enough. We should build better roads,” said Gyamco. For this purpose, the region has attached great importance to the reconstruction of the Yangbajain-Lhasa section of the Qinghai-Tibet Highway. The 66.4-km section, which will be completed in November this year, will be upgraded to a second-class road. The State has invested 397 million yuan in this project.

The roadbed, bridges, tunnels, drainage system and retaining walls have been completed, and the road surface is currently being paved. To ensure a high quality, destructive tests have been conducted, with satisfying results.

The Tibet Tianlu Corp. and the transportation troop of the Armed Police have jointly undertaken the reconstruction project. Compared with past efforts, road-building methods have been greatly improved, with much more machinery, advanced equipment and scientific instruments being used. This has significantly reduced labor intensity and hastened building progress.

Between 2000 and 2005, Tibet will totally renovate the China-Nepal Highway, sealing the surface of the entire route with asphalt. Continuous construction will be done on two main roads leading to Tibet—the South Sichuan Road and the No.109 National Highway, and asphalted roads will total 10,000 km.

The Xinjiang-Tibet Highway, the north section of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway and some sections of the Yunnan-Tibet Highway will also be reconstructed or renovated. By the end of 2005, highways in the region will total 27,000 km, of which roads at or above third class will account for 17 percent.The proportion of townships and administrative villages that have access to simply constructed roads will reach 90 percent and more than 70 percent respectively. A highway transportation network covering the whole region will be shaped.

Promising Future

On June 29 this year, an inauguration ceremony for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, a gigantic project attracting worldwide attention, was held simultaneously at Golmud in Qinghai, and Tibet’s Lhasa. Tibet having no railway will soon become a thing of the past.

From Golmud to Lhasa, the Qinghai-Tibet Railway will stretch 1,118 km. It is the first key engineering project China has undertaken in the new century, as well as one of the major projects of the country’s western development. The Central Government plans to make enormous investments in this, the world’s highest and longest railway, which is expected to boost the economic development of Tibet.

Zhang Ming, a Tibetan working with the China Research Center of Tibetology, noted that over the past 50 years, Tibet has been building roads but they are difficult to keep in service due to climatic and natural environmental reasons. Therefore, it is still difficult for Tibetans to go out of Tibet and the majority of farmers and herdsmen have never left the highlands.

“The Qinghai-Tibet Railway will help them realize their dreams to see the outside world, because it will guarantee smooth traffic and will have lower travel costs,” Zhang said excitedly.

The future transportation network of Tibet will consist of highways, railways and airways. As far as the highway network is concerned, Gyamco said, Tibet will thoroughly renovate the four trunk roads from Tibet to Qinghai, Yunnan, Xinjiang and Sichuan in the coming 20 years, and build roads to areas bordering Myanmar, India, Bhutan, Nepal and Kashmir.

The regional communications departments also stress upgrading existing roads, improving their capacity to resist disasters and connecting them, to ensure a true and complete highway network on the rooftop of the world.

(Beijing Review 08/20/2001)

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